Research Methods STA630
OBSERVATION STUDIES (Contd.)
Steps in Field Research
Naturalism and direct involvement mean that field research is more flexible or less structured than
quantitative research. This makes it essential for a researcher to be well organized and prepared for the
field. It also means that the steps of project are not entirely predetermined but serve as an approximate
guide or road map. These guideline steps are:
1. Prepare yourself, read the literature and defocus. As with all social and behavioral research,
reading the scholarly literature helps the researcher learn concepts, potential pitfalls, data
collection methods, and techniques for resolving conflicts. In addition field researcher finds
diaries, novels, journalistic accounts, and autobiographies useful for gaining familiarity and
preparing emotionally for the field. Field research begins with a general topic, not specific
hypotheses. A researcher does not get locked into any initial misconceptions. He or she needs
to be well informed but open to discovering new ideas.
A researcher first empties his or her mind of preconceptions and defocuses. There are two types
of defocusing. The first is casting a wide net in order to witness a wide range of situations,
people, and setting getting a feel of the overall setting before deciding what to include or
exclude. The second type of defocusing means not focusing exclusively on the role of
researcher. It may be important to extend one's experience beyond a strictly professional role.
Another preparation for field research is self knowledge. A field researcher needs to know him
or herself and reflect on personal experiences. He or she can expect anxiety, self doubt,
frustration, and uncertainty in the field. Also all kinds of stereotypes about the community
should be emptied.
2. Select a site and gain access. Although a field research project does not proceed by fixed steps,
some common concerns arise in the early stages. These include selecting a site, gaining access
to the site, entering the field, and developing rapport with members in the field.
Field site is the context in which events or activities occur, a socially defined territory with
shifting boundaries. A social group may interact across several physical sites. For example, a
college football team may interact on the playing field, in the dressing room, at a training camp
or at the place where they are staying. The team's field site includes all four locations.
Physical access to a site can be an issue. Sites can be on a continuum, with open and public
areas (e.g., public restaurants, airport waiting rooms) at one end and closed and private settings
(e.g., private firms, clubs, activities in a person's home) at the other end. A researcher may find
that he or she is not welcome or not allowed on the site, or there are legal and political barriers
Look for the gate keepers for getting an entry. A gatekeeper is someone with the formal
authority to control access to a site. It can be a thug at the corner, an administrator of a hospital,
or the owner of a business. In formal public areas (e.g., sidewalks, public waiting rooms) rarely
have gatekeepers; formal organizations have authorities from whom permission must be
obtained. Field researchers expect to negotiate with gatekeepers and bargain for access. Entry
and access can be visualized as an access ladder. A researcher begins at the bottom rung, where
access is easy and where he or she is an outsider looking for public information. The next
access rung requires increased access. Once close on-site observations begin, he or she
becomes a passive observer, not questioning what members of community say. With time in
the field, the researcher observes specific activities that are potentially sensitive or seeks
clarification of what he or she sees or hears. Reaching this access rung is more difficult.
Finally, the researcher may try to shape interaction so that it reveals specific information, or he
or she may want to see highly sensitive material. This highest rung of access ladder is rarely
Research Methods STA630
attained and requires deep trust. Such a situation may be applicable to a site of a public or
private organization. In other situations just like entering the village community, the researcher
may have to use different kind of access ladder. He or she may have to use local influential and
some other contact persons who could introduce the researcher to local leaders and help
building the rapport.
3. Enter the field and establish social relations with members. Present yourself in the field the
way it is acceptable to the people to be studied. Develop relations and establish rapport with
individual members. Here the researcher may have to learn the local language. A field
researcher builds rapport by getting along with members in the field. He or she forges a
friendly relationship, shares the same language, and laughs and cries with members. This is a
step toward obtaining an understanding of members and moving beyond understanding to
empathy that is seeing and feeling events from another's perspective.
4. Enter the field: Adopt a social role, learn the ropes, and get along with members. At times, a
researcher adopts an existing role. Some existing roles provide access to all areas of the site,
the ability to observe and interact with all members, the freedom to move around, and a way to
balance the requirements of researcher and member. There could be some limitations for the
adoption of specific roles. Such limitations may be because of researcher's age, race, gender,
and attractiveness. At other times, a researcher creates new roles or modifies the existing one.
The adoption of field role takes time, and a researcher may adopt several different field roles
The role may also depend upon the level of involvement in the community's activities. The
researcher may be a complete observer, observer as participant, participant as observer, and
As a researcher learns the ropes on the field site, he or she learns how to cope with personal
stress, how to normalize the social research, and how to act like an "acceptable incompetent."
A researcher is in the field to learn, not to be an expert. Depending on the setting, he or she
appears to be friendly but na´ve outsider, an acceptable incompetent who is interested in
learning about social life of the field. An acceptable incompetent is one who is partially
competent (skilled or knowledgeable) in the setting but who s accepted as a non-threatening
5. Observing and collecting data: Watch, listen, and collect quality data. A great deal of what
field researchers do in the field is to pay attention, watch, and listen carefully. They use all the
senses, noticing what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. The researcher becomes an
instrument that absorbs all sources of information.
Most field research data are in the form of field notes. Good notes are the brick and mortar of
field research. Full field notes can contain maps, diagrams, photographs, interviews, tape
recordings, videotapes, memos, objects from the field, notes jotted in the field, and detailed
notes written away from the field. A field researcher expects to fill many notebooks, or the
equivalent in computer memory. He or she may spend more time writing notes than being in
Writing notes is often boring, tedious work that requires self discipline. The notes contain
extensive descriptive detail drawn from memory. The researcher makes it a daily habit or
compulsion to write notes immediately after leaving the field. The notes must be neat and
organized because the researcher will return to them over and over again. Once written, the
notes are private and valuable. A researcher treats them with care and protects confidentiality.
Field researcher is supposed to collect quality data. What does the term high-quality data mean
in the field research, and what does a researcher do to get it? For a quantitative researcher, high
quality data are reliable and valid; they give precise, consistent measures of the "objective"
truth for all researchers. An interpretive approach suggests a different kind of data quality.
Instead of assuming one single, objective truth, field researchers hold that members subjectively
interpret experiences within social context. What a member takes to be true results from social
interaction and interpretation. Thus high quality field data capture such processes and provide
an understanding of the member's viewpoint.
Research Methods STA630
A field researcher does not eliminate subjective views to get quality data: rather, quality data
include his or her subjective responses and experiences. Quality field data are detailed
descriptions from the researcher's immersion and authentic experiences in the social world of
6. Begin to analyze data generate and evaluate working hypothesis. Right in the field try to look
into the research questions and the kind of answers the researcher is getting. The analysis of the
answers might help in the generation of hypotheses. Over time are such hypotheses being
supported by further field research?
7. Focus on specific aspects of the setting and use theoretical sampling. Field researcher first
gets a general picture, and then focuses on a few specific problems or issues. A researcher
decides on specific research questions and develops hypotheses only after being in the field and
experiencing it first hand. At first, everything seems relevant; later, however, selective attention
focuses on specific questions and themes.
Field research sampling differs from survey sampling, although sometime both use snowball
sampling. A field researcher samples by taking a smaller, selective set of observations from all
possible observations. It is called theoretical sampling because it is guided by the researcher's
developing theory. Field researchers sample times, situations, types of events, locations, types
of people, or context of interest.
For example field researcher samples time by observing a setting at different times. He or she
observes at all time of the day, on every day of the week, and in all seasons to get a full sense of
how the field site stays the same or changes. Another example, when the field researcher
samples locations because one location may give depth, but narrow perspective. Sitting or
standing in different locations helps the researcher to get a sense of the whole site. Similarly the
field researchers sample people by focusing their attention or interaction on different kinds of
people (young, adult, old).
8. Conduct field interviews with member informants. Field researchers use unstructured, non
directive, in-depth interviews, which differs from formal survey research interviews in many
ways. The field interview involves asking question, listening,
expressing interest, and
recording what was said.
Field interview is a joint production of a research and a member. Members are active
participants whose insights, feelings, and cooperation are essential parts of a discussion process
that reveals subjective meaning. The interviewer's presence and form of involvement how he
or she listens, attends, encourages, interrupts, disagrees, initiates topics, and terminates
responses is integral to the respondent's account.
Field research interviews go by many names: unstructured, depth, ethnographic, open ended,
informal, and long. Generally, they involve one or more people being present, occur in the
field, and are informal and nondirective.
A comparison of the field research interview and a survey interview could be as below:
1. It has clear beginning and end.
1. The beginning and end are not clear. The interview
can be picked up later.
2. The same standard questions are
2. The questions and the order in which
asked of all respondents in the same
they are asked are tailored to specific people
3. The interviewer appears neutral
3.The interviewer shows interest in
at all times.
responses, encourages elaboration.
4. The interviewer asks questions,
4. It is like a friendly conversational ex-
and the respondent answers.
change but with more interviewer questions.
Research Methods STA630
5. It is almost always with one
5. It can occur in group setting or with
others in area, but varies.
6. It has a professional tone and
6. It is interspersed with jokes, aside,
businesslike focus, diversions are
stories, diversions, and anecdotes, which
7. Closed-ended questions are
7. Open-ended questions are common,
common, with rare probes.
and probes are frequent.
8. The interviewer alone controls
8. The interviewer and member jointly
the pace and direction of interview.
control the pace and direction of the interview.
9. The social context in which the
9. The social context of the interview is
interview occurs is ignored and
noted and seen as important for interpreting
assumed to make little difference.
the meaning of responses.
10. The interviewer attempts to mold
10. The interviewer adjusts to the member's
the communication pattern into a
norms and language usages.
9. Disengage and physically leave the setting. Work in the field can last for a few weeks to a
dozen years. In either case at some point of work in the field ends. Some researchers suggest
that the end comes naturally when the theory building ceases or reaches a closure; others feel
that fieldwork could go on without end and that a firm decision to cut off relations is needed.
Experienced field researchers anticipate a process of disengaging and exiting the field.
Depending on the intensity of involvement and the length o time in the field, the process can be
disruptive or emotionally painful for both the researcher and the members.
Once researcher decides to leave because the project reaches a natural end and little new is
being learned, or because external factors force it to end (e.g., end of job, gatekeepers order the
researcher out) he or she chooses a method of exiting. The researcher can leave by quick exit
(simply not return one day) or slowly withdraw, reducing his or her involvement over weeks.
He or she also needs to decide how to tell members and how much advance warning to give.
The best way to exist is to follow the local norms and continuing with the friendly relations.
10. Complete the analysis and write the report. After disengaging from the field setting the
researcher writes the report. The researcher may share the written report with the members
observed to verify the accuracy and get their approval of its portrayal in print. It may help in
determining the validity of the findings. However, it may not be possible to share the findings
with marginal groups like addicts, and some deviant groups.
Ethical Dilemmas of Field research
The direct personal involvement of a field researcher in the social lives of other people raises many
ethical dilemmas. The dilemmas arise when the researcher is alone in the field and has little time to
make a moral decision. Although he or she may be aware of general ethical issues before entering the
field, they arise unexpectedly in the course of observing and interacting in the field. Let us look at some
of these dilemmas:
Deception: Deception arises in several ways in field research: The research may be covert; or may
assume a false role, name, or identity; or may mislead members in some way. The most hotly debated of
the ethical issues arising from deception is that of covert versus overt field research. Some support it
and see it as necessary for entering into and aiming a full knowledge of many areas of social life.
Others oppose it and argue that it undermines a trust between researchers and society. Although its
Research Methods STA630
moral status is questionable, there are some field sites or activities that can only be studied covertly.
One may have to look into the cost and benefit equation; where the researcher is the best judge.
Covert research is never preferable and never easier than overt research because of the difficulties of
maintaining a front and the constant fear of getting caught.
Confidentiality: A researcher learns intimate knowledge that is given in confidence. He or she has a
moral obligation to uphold the confidentiality of data. This includes keeping information confidential
from others in the field and disguising members' names in field notes.
Involvement with deviants: Researchers who conduct research on deviants who engage in illegal
behavior face additional dilemmas. They know of and are sometimes involved in illegal activity. They
might be getting `guilty knowledge.' Such knowledge is of interest not only to law enforcement
officials but also to other deviants. The researcher faces a dilemma of building trust and rapport with
the deviants, yet not becoming so involved as to violate his or her basic personal moral standards.
Usually, the researcher makes an explicit arrangement with the deviant members.
The powerful: Field researchers tend to study those without power in society (e.g., street people, the
poor, children, and lower level workers). Powerful elites can block access and have effective
gatekeepers. Researchers are criticized for ignoring the powerful, and they are also criticized by the
powerful for being biased toward the less powerful.
Publishing field reports: The intimate knowledge that a researcher obtains and reports creates a
dilemma between the right of privacy and the right to know. A researcher does not publicize member
secrets, violate privacy, or harm reputations. Yet if he or she cannot publish anything that might offend
or harm someone, some of what the researcher learned will remain hidden, and it may be difficult for
others to believe the report if critical details are omitted.
Some researchers suggest asking members of the group under study to look at a report to verify its
accuracy and to approve of their portrayal in print. For marginal groups (addicts), this may not be
possible, but the researchers must always respect member privacy. On the other hand, censorship or
self-censorship can be a danger. A compromise position is that truthful but unflattering material may be
published only if it is essential to the researchers' larger arguments.
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